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Mirroring trend, West Virginia University slashes language programs

ANALYSIS: ‘Disaster,’ professor says. ‘Language is one of the traits that makes us uniquely human’

West Virginia University is preparing to eliminate world language programs next year, mirroring a trend in high education that has linguists and historians concerned.

Cuts to foreign language courses also have been happening at other universities, including the State University of New York at Fredonia and Harvard University.

Jonah Katz, a linguistics professor at WVU, told The College Fix the university’s cuts extend beyond the world languages department, which will be defunct before the new academic year.

“World languages, literatures, and linguistics” programs are suffering in the wake of substantial cuts to WVU’s faculty — “150 faculty were laid off and 100-150 more ‘voluntarily’ retired early,” Katz said in a recent email.

The public university has been downsizing as it faces a $45 million deficit. In the fall, its Board of Governors voted to end its World Languages Department and cut other programs, including civil engineering, education administration, and art history.

The changes will affect less than 1 percent of undergraduate students and about 4 percent of graduate students, a university news release states.

Katz expressed concerns about the effects program eliminations will have on students and faculty.

“The current cuts are not the end of WVU’s disaster; they are just the beginning,” Katz said.

When asked why his field of study is important, Katz said “language is one of the traits that makes us uniquely human.” He stressed how “understanding the cognitive and biological underpinnings of language is an integral part of understanding what it means to be human.”

He also mentioned “the analytical, cognitive, and computational study of language has been central to technological developments and commercial applications in the tech sector for the last several generations.”

According to Katz, linguistic contributions to technological developments “will only become more central with the rise of Large-Language-Model-driven AI applications.”

However, “by eliminating the scientific study of language from their course offerings, WVU is essentially closing off that entire sector of careers for their students,” he said.

And it’s not only WVU. In March, SUNY Fredonia announced plans to cut 13 programs, including majors in French and Spanish.

This decision was made to maintain “financial sustainability,” according to a statement released by the public university.

SUNY Fredonia President Stephen Kolison stated in the release the discontinued programs had “low enrollment,” and the university is committed to investing in “strong and relevant programs.”

The Fix contacted the communications offices of SUNY Fredonia and WVU twice in the past two weeks to ask about their cuts to foreign language programs, but did not receive responses.

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Ivy League universities have been cutting language programs, too.

Harvard University history Professor James Hankins lamented the shift in a recent Law & Liberty magazine essay about “the woke seizure of major cultural institutions.”

“When I came to Harvard in 1985, I heard the (to me) astonishing boast that it was possible to learn over 150 languages here if you could locate the persons who knew them, who were usually squirreled away somewhere in the bowels of Widener Library,” Hankins wrote.

“Now that number is 45, somewhat fewer than are taught at the University of Michigan, and considerably fewer than the 75 taught at Yale. Such, apparently, are the fruits of ‘multi-culturalism,’” he wrote.

Over the past decade, colleges and universities have been steadily decreasing opportunities for foreign language study, according to the Modern Language Association.

Contacted for comment on the trend, MLA pointed The Fix to its 2023 report that found “enrollments in languages other than English dropped by 16.6% between fall 2016 and fall 2021.”

Two-year institutions were most affected, with a 24 percent drop in foreign language enrollments between 2016 and 2021, according to the report.

The MLA noted the “decrease in language enrollments can be [partially] attributed to the decline in the number of students enrolling in colleges and universities.”

However, fewer enrollments do not fully account for reduced opportunities since “college and university enrollments fell by 8.0%” between 2016 and 2021, “while language enrollments fell by 16.6%,” according to the report.

The MLA report noted funding is “an essential factor for the recovery of the language field” and observed “a moderate positive correlation” between increased funding and language program enrollments.

The downward trend has been going on for more than a decade. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of California at Riverside found 59 percent of four-year colleges “offered Romance-language majors in 2006, compared to almost 76 percent in the 1970-71”; Spanish language classes were the exception.

MORE: Northwestern project aims to create ‘gender bias-free’ foreign language classes

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Emily McMichael is a student at Liberty University where she is pursuing a degree in English literature and writing. In her spare time, she enjoys writing poetry and literary analyses, and is the author of Within and Without the World of Gatsby: A Critical Analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Masterpiece.